Forward Theater Co. unveils 2020-21 season of plays
Company to tell 'The United Stories of America' on stage
After 11 seasons, it should probably be apparent that Jennifer Uphoff Gray and Forward Theater Co. don’t typically hunt for themes when they program new seasons. In fact, it’s usually the other way around. Each year, they pick their plays, and if a theme happens to emerge, that’s just dramatic gravy on the theatrical mashed potatoes.
Let’s just say that the company’s 12th season, announced on Tuesday, comes with a big side of gravy. Pitched as “The United Stories of America,” it features a four-pack of plays that include two Wisconsin premieres and a rolling world premiere.
“We’re always picking play by play; trying to find a balance with the plays we locked in on early,” explains Gray. “This is a census year in addition to being an election year. Every 10 years, we look at who we are, and what struck us is that there is something intrinsic about who we see ourselves as Americans. What stories do we tell, and who gets to be part of those stories?”
‘The Lifespan of a Fact’
The first two offerings were plays Gray and her staff locked in on a few years ago. First up in September is Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell’s “The Lifespan of a Fact,” a play Forward pounced on after it opened on Broadway in 2018. It centers on a battle between an author and a fact checker over a magazine essay that may or may not be true.
“This is a topical, substance-based comedy,” says Gray. “Since 2016, people have been wrestling with what’s going on in the world, and this play gets at a lot of that: the value of journalism and the battle of facts versus feelings.”
The show features Forward stalwart Michael Herold and a guest directing shot from Joe Hanreddy, the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre artistic director who hasn’t directed in Madison since his days with the late, lamented Madison Repertory Theater.
‘45 plays for America’s First Ladies’
Stretch your memory back around eight years and you’ll recall “44 Plays for 44 Presidents,” one of the shows Forward did in its inaugural season in 2009. Gray was thinking it was time for a restaging, but instead she found a re-upping. When she contacted the playwrights (Chloe Johnston, Sharon Greene, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Bilal Dardai and Andy Bayiates), they just happened to be putting the finishing touches on “45 plays for 45 First Women,” and were only too happy to give Forward the rights to participate in the rolling world premiere. It debuts in November.
The show includes 45 two-minute plays and an interesting conundrum: We know a little something about Martha Washington and Abigail Adams, but what about more obscure first ladies like Abigail Fillmore and Margaret Taylor?
“That’s actually the point,” says Gray. “This play is about the other people around the person in power.”
Clare Arena Haden, who has been part of Forward shows in most of the company’s recent seasons — you saw her most recently in the title role in “Mary Jane,” the lead production on the 2019-20 docket — is part of the cast. So, too, is American Players Theatre newcomer Jamal James, who appeared in that company’s productions of “She Stoops to Conquer” and “Fences” last summer.
The second half of Forward’s new season kicks off with playwright Joshua Harmon’s “Admissions,” a play Gray describes as “a very funny comedy dealing with serious racial inequities and how we address them.”
As you might suspect, the plot deals with a university’s attempts to diversify its student body. The action’s set in new England, but it could just as easily be set in Madison.
“The play takes aim at white liberal hypocrisy,” says Gray. “It’s holding up a mirror up to ourselves. Let’s just say the plot and characters will feel so relatable.”
“Admissions” opens in January 2021, and the cast features APT veteran (and Forward Board member) Sarah Day.
‘Lewiston | Clarkston’
The season’s final production, opening in April 2021, is something of a dramatic curveball. It’s “Lewiston | Clarkston,” a pair of one-act plays by playwright Samuel Hunter, an artist Forward’s been watching for awhile.
“This is a classic whole-is-bigger-than-the-sum-of-its-parts play,” says Gray.
“Lewiston” is about an older woman (who happens to be the descendant of famed explorer Merriweather Lewis) looking to save her land and legacy. “Clarkston” focuses on a younger man (who happens to be the descendant of famed explorer William Clark) trying to find his place in the world.
Some theaters across the country are staging one of the plays and not the other. Forward’s getting around some of the obstacles created in staging both by mixing things up — there will be an earlier start time and a half-hour intermission to accommodate the longer run time. Gray is directing “Lewiston” and handing duties for “Clarkston” off to frequent Forward director Jake Penner.
‘The Amateurs,’ cancelled
As for the current season, Gray’s in the middle of wrapping it up. Rehearsals are in full swing for “The Amateurs,” which, barring any coronavirus-related cancellations, is set to open March 19. [Editor’s note: On March 13, The Overture Center for the Arts announced the cancellation of the entire run of “The Amateurs.”] The irony is that the play is about a theater troupe exploring the meaning of art in the time of the bubonic plague.
Fortunately, she says, the play’s a comedy, not a post-apocalyptic horror film. “Thematically, there’s an extra resonance,” she says.
So far, the season’s biggest hit, not surprisingly, has been “Every Brilliant Thing,” the one-man show featuring APT Core Company member David Daniel that closed last month. Not only did the play nearly sell out its entire run, but the audience participation elements built into the show delighted crowds. Audience members were encouraged to use post-it notes in the theatre lobby to share things that motivate them.
“We got more than 1,500 submissions,” Gray says. “That’s what I’d call life-affirming.”
Season subscriptions to Forward’s 2020-21 season are on sale now. Individual tickets go on sale in August.
Aaron R. Conklin covers the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.